The Coronavirus has provided us a crash course in tenderness consciousness. There is a near global shut down of day to day life with widespread concern for oneself, our loved ones, and apprehension about the future. Human beings have never faced a fear of the unknown so collectively. What we do know is that the virus makes no distinction between race, color, creed or orientation. Rich and poor, famous and ordinary alike are in its path. We could say that ordinariness has taken over any sense of “specialness” that has pervaded too much of 21st century life. An ordinary virus, but one that’s deadly, has brought the world to a frightening halt. With it comes a stunning realization that all the distinctions between us feel arbitrary and unnecessary. What’s important today is the teaching from American 19th century poet, Walt Whitman. In Leaves of Grass he proclaims, “for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
There has been a deluge of people writing and posting about the global meaning of this time for humanity. Some see it as Mother Nature delivering humans a course correction for our wayward ways of self-focus, greed, consumption and abuse. Others have been recognizing a silver lining in the pandemic for them personally. In this time of lockdown, people have been making incredible music, composing deep poetry, writing philosophically. Others are busy creating clever, funny videos and jokes, or poignant messages and prayers. All of this production has gone—excuse the expression— viral. Gratefully. It feels so good to laugh heartily. And to tear up. You know you are sharing these reactions with many millions.
All the outpouring that arrives daily in our in-box serves an important tenderness purpose: It’s helping us TO FEEL. For many, feelings arise readily, but for vast numbers of the population around the world feeling true feelings doesn’t come at all naturally or easily. That’s due to the part of ourselves that fiercely defends against our softer, more tender side. Feeling sad or scared or bereft implies too much softness for some. For the more armored of us, hearing the virus death tallies each day must be thawing their locked-up hearts.
I like to believe that the human community is coming closer to a “one accord” during this time than ever known before, and some good must come from it. Sheltering in place, however, is not easy for people with children out of school, elders or special needs kids to care for, scarcity, or for families with high conflict, substance problems, abusiveness or mental illness. Too much togetherness can be risky. But for some this time of slow down provides an opportunity to rest, think, sleep, play with the dog, eat with the kids at the table over conversation, play hopscotch, do a creative project, Zoom, simply Be. These are all ordinary activities. Interestingly, these are also the things that people always say they wished they had done more of when they reflect backward at the end of life.
No question, this is a time of great vulnerability for every one of us, regardless of circumstances. There’s no way to solve the problem, finagle a solution, or buy your way out of the trouble. You are simply helpless in the big picture, unsure and exposed. Only the little picture is under your guidance. It’s one of those tenderness moments, like a terrible illness, a sudden death, a devastating storm, when you’ve been brought to your knees. And it’s a chance to “pray.” Indeed, for all of us it’s an opportunity to say “Thank you,” by partaking of the ordinariness of this precious day in this precious life that you’ve been granted. And to me there’s nothing more ordinary than gardening.
It’s commonplace to see a gardener kneeling by a flower or vegetable bed in earliest Spring. This human activity of gardening dates back eons. The palace courtyard gardens of ancient Mesopotamia were places for walking, meditation, romance. The flower fragrances were transporting and therapeutic. Temple gardeners cultivated luscious figs, fruits and flowers that were used for religious ritual and offerings.
In ancient Greece, the physician Hippocrates, and Asclepios before him, believed that illness arose from imbalances in body and mind, and that the cure involved finding a way back to the equilibrium of the natural state. These and other physicians of that time believed that the body knew how to cure itself under the right conditions. The Greeks believed in a holistic approach to health. Patients in need of cures would visit the healing sanctuaries where their bodies were tended by promoting optimal conditions for deep sleep and dreaming. Once awake, patients were bathed, oiled, exercised, fed, and then sent off to the theater to see a Greek tragedy or comedy that would cleanse them mentally and emotionally.
Hippocrates famous quote that “Nature itself is the best physician,” brings me back to gardening. Recently when I was walking on this warmer than usual early April day I noticed numerous people in their yards gardening. One woman knelt by her flower bed tilling soil. Others were maneuvering their wheelbarrows, cleaning up the winter debris or filling lawn bags with the dead leaves and twigs they’ve just raked from the nooks and crannies around their homes. My daughter and her husband took up a bigger task. There’s a small creek and natural spring in the back of their property. The spring can pool and stagnate. They decided to redirect the flow to help the spring stay fresher. Mucking around the wet ground with their vision of a more usable outdoor area became a family affair: kids, dogs, fun! On this walk I kept thinking to myself: “There are going to be some really spectacular gardens this year. People have more time to tend their gardens right now, and the results will be energizing and vibrant. How lovely!”
It may surprise you to learn that there is a long well-established branch of therapy called “Horticultural Therapy.” Social Therapeutic Horticulture (STH) is a field that aims to assist a wide range of populations: mental health patients, addiction and recovery patients, elder and hospice care patients. There’s also a branch of landscape design whose mission is to create private and public spaces that are “therapeutic” sanctuaries for health and restoration.
Whether in clinical practice or community spaces, the visual, tactile, and olfactory aesthetics of plants, and the sounds of bird song, has been proven to bring about positive emotional response: calm, strength to heal, greater contentment with one’s life. People’s quality of life and well-being increases, stress and anxiety lessens and heart health improves. Interacting with plants is thought to lead to increased longevity! I especially love how gardening activates the tenderness core in us through the activity of literally tending another life form to grow and thrive.
Wherever you choose to “garden,” whether in an actual garden, the neglected attic or basement, the photo library that needs care and attention, or metaphorically, you favor tending your mind, heart and body, the activity will deeply enrich you. Tending is exactly what we are all collectively being called to do today; tend ourselves, tend others, tend the world by cooperating and being careful. When you get some rest, listen to your thoughts, notice your inspired creative ideas, you will feel stronger in spirit. And if you have children they will benefit from the extra tending that you are being called upon to provide.
We always come to appreciate something more when we lose it. Right now our losses are extraordinary: the freedom to move around, to work, earn, play, socialize, hear the sweet chirping sounds from a school playground. Suddenly, the ordinary has become the most precious. Don’t ever take it for granted. Instead, be ordinary, garden and improve, yourself, others, and the world.
Click here to listen to a CNN interview on horticultural therapy.